National Elections and Religion in America
- Frank LambertFrank LambertPurdue University
Religious engagement in America’s national elections occurs within a changing religious and political landscape and therefore requires an analytical framework that accounts for change over time. The nature and composition of religious coalitions, the growing diversity of religious affiliations and sentiments, and the challenges to religion posed by secular interests must be considered.
Religious activists seek through national politics what the Constitution forbids: acknowledgment of the nation’s dependence on providence, government support for religion, and the imposition of religious tests on office seekers. They speak primarily through coalitions of sectarians with shared principles and values based on their interpretation of scripture and their view of the nation’s religious heritage. Some groups claim that the United States was founded on Christian principles for Christian ends, and therefore they advocate restoration of a Christian America. Others claim that the nation has never lived up to its founding ideals of justice and equality, and they demand that the country fulfil those promises. Whatever their aims, religious coalitions in national elections purport to speak in a prophetic and universal voice, yet in their advocacy of a particular candidate or public policy they become, and are viewed as, partisans.
America is a land of religious diversity and activism, and the political result is competing religious voices in national elections. The United States consists of 200-plus denominations and sects and more than 35,000 independent congregations. And, as some indication of religious activism, there are more than 200 registered religious lobbies in Washington, DC. Without a religious establishment, religion in the United States operates in a marketplace of competing religions whereby no sect is favored and all are all free to pursue their beliefs and practices as long as they do not interfere with the rights of other sects. That diversity and competition extend to politics. Whenever, for example, a religious coalition demands that candidates pass a religious test or lobbies for specific moral initiatives, other religious activists charge them with attempting to impose a particular religion on the country in violation of the nation’s heritage of religious freedom and separation of church and state.
In addition to encountering competition from other religious groups, a religious political coalition faces opposition from secular interests. From its founding America has been profoundly sacred and profoundly secular, and sometimes the pursuits of piety and profits clash, as do religious convictions and scientific claims. Marketplace issues abound pitting sacred and secular interests against each other, including “Blue Laws,” or Sunday-closing acts, regulation of the sale of firearms, censorship of the internet, insurance coverage for contraceptives, and prohibition of alcohol and drugs. Science and faith come into conflict in the political arena over such issues as stem-cell research, human cloning, artificial intelligence, and weapons development and sales.
National elections are forums for discussing the nation’s moral heritage, character, and mission. Given the country’s religious diversity and its dual sacred-secular heritage, many voices demand to be heard in what is often a contest between religious orthodoxy and religious liberty.